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Chapter Twenty-nine

TESS HAD BEEN PARKED OUTSIDE ADRIAN'S FOR ALMOST two hours-joints beyond stiff, stomach hollow enough to echo-when her cell phone rang.

"Anything?" Mark Rubin asked.

"No. She left her apartment at nine-thirty, came straight to work, and she's been here since."

"You do know Adrian's has a separate entrance for deliveries, right?"

"Yes, I'm aware of that." Tess was cross at being second-guessed. She thought she had gained some ground with Mark yesterday, but his crust must have replenished itself overnight. "I have Lana's car in view, and I'm far enough back so I have sight lines of both entrances. Hey-how do you know that Adrian's has a side entrance?"

"Because I'm parked about thirty feet from it."

She shifted her gaze to the right. Yes, there was Rubin's dark blue Cadillac, windows rolled down. He gave her a discreet wave.

"Are you checking up on me?"

"Not exactly." There was actually a note of apology in his voice. "When I woke up this morning, I just couldn't imagine going to work, trying to pretend I had my mind on business. I liked being part of things yesterday. You told me you were going to be watching Lana, so I thought I would, too."

"Watching the detective, huh? Were you outside her apartment, too?" It would be humiliating beyond belief if Mark Rubin had managed to follow her in that huge boat of a Cadillac.

"Actually, I didn't know where she lived, so I just came here and waited. She arrived"-Tess watched him pull out a small pad and read from it-"at nine fifty-five a.m."

"And are you planning to follow us both when she leaves here?"

"Well…" His tone told Tess that was exactly what he had intended, although he was beginning to see how silly it was.

"Look, leave your car there and come sit in mine. We'll do this together."

"Mine's nicer."

"Is everything a negotiation with you?"

"Yes."

Tess had to laugh at Mark's honesty on this point. "Well, if we use your car, I get to drive. Following someone is tougher than it looks. But if you'll trust me to take the wheel of your Cadillac, we can use your car."

"Deal."


They passed another hour in the Cadillac, and even its wider, plusher seats did little for Tess's various aches. She had heard of tourist-class syndrome, the potentially lethal blood clots that developed on long plane rides. Could there be private-eye syndrome as well?

"This is pretty mind-numbing," Mark admitted, as if reading her thoughts.

"Not to mention other parts."

"You should structure your fee system so you charge more for surveillance."

"I do. At least we have each other for company. Imagine doing it alone."

"Awful. For me anyway. You're more of a loner."

"Where did you get that idea?"

"I don't know." Mark was embarrassed now, as if he had said something unintentionally tactless. "You seem so self-sufficient. Other than your Uncle Donald, I've never heard you talk about your family. You're not married, you mentioned a boyfriend once, but you've never even said his name. When we were… delayed in Grantsville yesterday, the only worry you seemed to have was your dogs."

Lord, her life sounded bleak coming from Mark Rubin's mouth.

"How did you sleep last night?" she asked, hoping to change the subject. "Considering the delay in Grantsville."

"Fine. I told you, it's not going to be a problem for me."

"Then why use euphemisms? Whoa-manicurist in motion."

Lana barreled out of the front door, her stride rapid, but otherwise displaying none of the self-consciousness of a person who expects to be followed or watched. She was simply in a rush. She jumped into her car and pulled onto Reisterstown Road, heading south. Tess followed, trying to stay two car lengths back, gunning a yellow at one point.

"Shit," she said, catching a flash of light from the corner of her eye. "That intersection had a camera."

"I'll pay the ticket when it comes," Mark said. "Just don't lose her."

Within a matter of miles, the sleek, upscale shops had given way to the more run-down stores in the neighborhood where Vera Peters lived. There were delis, bookstores advertising Judaica, the shell of the old Carvel stand where Mark had claimed to have met Natalie.

"Maybe she's going to see Natalie's mother or someone in her old neighborhood," Tess said, but the words were barely out of her mouth when Lana's car made an abrupt right-hand turn into a small shopping center. She parked outside an off-name convenience store in what appeared to be an old Fotomat store. Tess followed, parking as far from the store as possible.

"Where do you think she's going?" Mark asked, agitated.

"For all we know, she's buying a pack of cigarettes. Although I have to say the transaction seems to be taking an unusual amount of time. She's the only customer in the store, and she's been talking to the guy at the cash register since she went in."

They squinted through the store's dirty window, protected-Tess hoped-by the slant of the sun, which should create a glare on the Cadillac's windshield. Lana and the man were having a spirited back-and-forth. She kept shaking her head and pointing a credit card at him for emphasis. The man seemed unmoved by whatever plea she was making, indicating something on the counter and shrugging as if to say, What can I do? An exasperated Lana finally gave him the card, tapped the counter impatiently for another five minutes, then left empty-handed.

"Tough call," Tess said to Mark. "We can follow her, or we can go in there and find out what this was about. He has a sign advertising fax services and wire transfers."

"He won't tell us. No responsible businessman would reveal that kind of information. Let's stay with her."

"The key word is 'responsible.' I'm betting that someone who runs a convenience store called the Royal 7 leans toward the disreputable side."

The man behind the counter was big and burly, probably Mark Rubin's age, but more roughed up by life. Tess found herself fixated on his ears, which were rimmed with dark, furry hair. Between the ears and the eyes, which were green with a yellowish cast, he looked as if he had wandered out of some fantasy novel's dark side. He could be Gollum or at least a golem.

"What?" he asked, before Tess even had a chance to say anything, as if he were in the habit of anticipating trouble.

She thought of various lies to tell. She was from immigration and she suspected that the woman who had just left the store was an illegal alien; what could he tell her about her activities? Or Lana Wishnia was a fugitive and they were bail bondsmen who would give him a cut of their fee if he helped them in any way.

But she just didn't feel like making the effort. Instead Tess let her suede jacket fall open, giving him a glimpse of the gun on her belt, and said, "The woman who was just in here-I need to know what kind of business she transacted."

"You're not police," he said.

"No, but I have friends in the police department, and in the state department of licensing and regs, even in the health department, and I'm sure any one of those agencies could find a beef with your store, whether it's the hot dogs that have been sitting on that grill for the past week or the gas pump that can afford to dispense gas at ten cents below the going rate because it's shorting your customers a few ounces on the gallon."

The man smiled, amused by Tess's bravado. "She wired two thousand dollars via e-mail to a Western Union store in Zanesville, Ohio."

"Which store?"

"Only one I found." He showed Tess the address in a directory. "She said it was going to someone named Wilma Loomis."

"The name mean anything to you?" Tess asked Mark Rubin.

"It sounds as if it should, but… no, no, I'm drawing a blank."

"What about Zanesville?"

He shook his head.

Tess turned back to the grinning counterman, whose enjoyment of their discomfiture seemed out of proportion. "What the hell is so funny?"

"There's a server problem. Transfers usually take only fif-teen minutes, but this one's going to take at least an hour, maybe two. That's why the girl was so upset. So while you're standing here, Wilma Loomis is still in Zanesville, waiting for the money. Too bad Zanesville is more than an hour's drive from here. But, like Einstein said, it's all about relativity."

"Were you a physics major before you started running an off-brand convenience store?"

The guy smirked. How Tess loathed him. He had no way of knowing how deeply his words cut, how Mark Rubin must yearn to manipulate time. Go back six hours and he could be in Zanesville now, waiting for his family to arrive at the Western Union office, assuming that the transfer was intended for Natalie. Go back six days and he could be sitting at a molded plastic table in McDonald's in French Lick, Indiana, a man's death no longer on his hands. Go back a month and he could refuse to leave for work on a Friday morning, have a chance to dissuade Natalie from this mysterious journey before it began.

"But we can play with time and space," Tess said. "In certain parts of the country."

Plucking Rubin's sleeve, she motioned for him to follow her outside, where she quickly dialed Gretchen O'Brien on her cell phone. Tess prayed for a voice, not voice mail. The prayer was answered. Perhaps Mark did have an in with God, because Tess didn't see how she rated.

"Gretchen? Tess. Didn't you just add someone to the network in the central Ohio area?"

"Yeah, east of Columbus. A retired librarian, with amazing online research skills. Great at financial stuff-SEC filings, Dun amp; Bradstreets-"

"I need some more basic legwork. We've got a lead on our missing family, at a Western Union store in Zanesville. They're stuck there for an hour because the server's down."

"But you don't have any paper on them, right? No warrant, no legal way to hold them?"

"No. If she finds them, she should just follow them as discreetly as possible, calling me on my cell to update their location. We'll start heading west on I-70 to get a head start and hope that they're heading east. Meanwhile, tell her the client will pay her hourly rate plus expenses plus a bonus if she has to go beyond eight hours today."

"Okay, but you should know she's not exactly used to this kind of fieldwork."

"She's within an hour of Zanesville, which is all that matters. Just get her on the phone and get her on the road as quickly as possible. She's our only shot."

"Too bad we don't have a Learjet, gassed up and ready to go from some central location."

"Very funny, Gretchen."

"Who's joking? I have big plans for the SnoopSisters. Sky's the limit. I've registered the domain name snoopsisters.com and I'm looking to get some sort of trademark protection. We're going to be the Starbucks of private investigation. You've got to think big, Tess."

Tess was too busy thinking little, hoping this one precious clue would bring Mark Rubin's children back to him.

They stopped at a Dunkin' Donuts on Reisterstown Road before heading to the highway.

"Kosher," Mark explained. "And quick.".

"I usually don't have a chocolate frosted for lunch, but sugar and caffeine will be a boon. Zanesville is at least eight hours from here. But if they head east, we could catch a break and overlap them."

"We're due for a break, don't you think?"

"Definitely." Tess, who had taken the first driving shift, was grateful she had a reason to stare straight ahead. She still didn't know whether to tell Mark what Larry Kirsch had said about Natalie's visits to the prison, the "services" she had provided. "Mark"-the name still felt funny in her mouth, but he didn't correct her-"how much do you know about Natalie's life before you met?"

"How much could there be to know? She was eighteen."

"And she had already decided to embrace Orthodox Judaism before she met you?"

"Yes, but she didn't know how to go about it. That was why she sought me out. Her father suggested I could help her find a rabbi who would oversee her education, prepare her for a bat mitzvah."

"How… propitious."

"What are you suggesting?"

"Nothing," she lied. "But her father's attempt to blackmail her later-"

"I told you, I was never tempted by Boris's games. Marriages must be based on trust. Whatever Boris wanted to tell me about Natalie was unimportant. She was so young. What could she possibly have done that couldn't be forgiven?"

Tess's thoughts were going somewhere else. If all Boris had on Natalie were his allegations about their own little prison-outreach program, as it were, she could have bluffed her way around that. A few tears, a convincing story, and Mark would have been willing to believe it was all a vile lie. Boris had something more concrete on his daughter-and a potential buyer, as he had told Tess, but one who hadn't paid him yet. If I don't get my due by the end of the month, he had said, I'll put it back on the market. Why had he been so definite about the date? Something was supposed to happen this month, the same month Natalie had disappeared.

"You should sleep," she told Mark. "We don't know how long we're going to be spelling each other behind the wheel of this car."

"I can't sleep," he said. "I got maybe two hours last night."

"You told me you slept fine last night."

"Two hours is fine for me. It's about as much sleep as I've had in the past month."

They had reached the turnoff that had taken them to western Maryland the day before, but the skies were not threatening today. The countryside's beauty had a mocking edge-the trees crimson and gold, the hills still green. Tess's cell phone rang, and she picked it up, expecting her emergency dog-sitter.

"Tess Monaghan?" The voice was an older woman's, enthusiastic and a little breathless. "This is Mary Eleanor Norris, and I've got 'em in my sights."


Chapter Twenty-eight | By A Spider`s Thread | Chapter Thirty







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